100 Years Ago Today: Arbuckle calls Rappe a bum

For most of Saturday, September 10, Roscoe Arbuckle and his pals Fred Fishback and Lowell Sherman once again drove north on Highway 4, which is now California 99 and Interstate 5, to San Francisco. Only this time in a much less joyful mood and with company. Arbuckle rode in his Pierce-Arrow which was driven by his chauffeur, and also carried his manager Lou Anger, and Frank Dominguez, his newly appointed attorney. Fishback followed in his car, accompanied by Sherman and Al Semnacher, the late Virginia Rappe’s manager/booking agent.

They had left Los Angeles at 3: 00 a.m., stopped for breakfast in Bakersfield, and reached Fresno at about 11:00 a.m., making good time.

As the two cars were being serviced and refueled at the A.B.C. Garage, an employee heard one of Arbuckle’s companions speaking to Arbuckle. “Say, a motor cop had been following you for a long while.”[1]

“Well,” the comedian retorted, “he’s been following you too.” Then he strolled over to the Hotel Fresno to purchase cigars and the latest papers to see what was being reported about him and Rappe, who was very much on his mind now if she hadn’t been over the past five days.

A desk clerk, Joe Davis, recognized Arbuckle standing by the cigar stand in the hotel lobby. Davis approached the film star and asked, “Well, who was the girl?”

Although outwardly jolly and carefree—like “Fatty” in the movies—Arbuckle took the opportunity to vent about his troubles, as one does with a stranger who one imagines is offering a sympathetic ear. He revealed a little of the man behind the celebrity who, on screen, seemed no more than a fat but lovable simpleton.

After giving the question some thought, Arbuckle lied about Rappe and disparaged her in the same breath. “I don’t know who she was,” he said, “some bum, I guess. They brought her in and we ‘bought a drink,’ and the first thing I knew she was drunk, and we got a room for her and called the manager in order to get a doctor.”

 “We’re going up to find out about this now,” Arbuckle continued, adding that he and his party were due at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. But they wouldn’t arrive at the Oakland Ferry for another five hours.

Source: San Francisco Examiner, September 11, 1921 (Newspapers.com)

[1] The following is adapted and quoted from “I Don’t Know Who She Was—Some Bum, I Guess,” Arbuckle Says; Sacramento Bee, 10 September 1921, 1; and “Arbuckle to Be Held Pending Probe of Death,” Fresno Morning Republican, 11 September 1921, 1, 6.

Bit Player #6: Betty Campbell on the meaning of a “rough party”

[In this sidebar adapted from our work-in-progress, Betty Campbell provides one of the few eyewitness accounts of what Arbuckle’s party was like for most of Labor Day 1921. The word “rough,” of course, was the 1920s euphemism for “sexual harassment” or abuse. Presumably, Virginia Rappe fell for some other variation of Sherman’s entrapment, that is, if she didn’t enter room 1219 with her consent. Incidentally, in Arbuckle first time taking the stand at his first trial, he claimed to have found Rappe in 1219’s bathroom.]

Neither the Grand Jury nor the Coroner’s Court heard Betty Campbell. San Francisco County District Attorney Matthew Brady knew that she had attended Roscoe Arbuckle’s Labor Day party late in the afternoon with her friend, the store model Dolly Clark. But he had shown more interest in Clark. Campbell though had a story too and while so many other witnesses were giving testimony, hers was published in the San Francisco Examiner.[1]

The youngest guest at the Labor Day party, Campbell was a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies and Al Jolson’s traveling show. She wanted to be a motion picture actress and her photographs, taken by the Hartsook Studio, attested to that aspiration as did her being a guest at Arbuckle’s Labor Day party. Her description of the latter half of the party reveals that Rappe’s crisis in room 1219 was merely an interruption, which barely cast a pall over the rest of the afternoon. Her description also revealed the kind of activity that the press was calling an “orgy,” a “debauch,” or, simply “the weird affair” and what was meant by “rough” in the parlance of the 1920s, a word used by other Labor Day party witnesses.

Source: Newspapers.com

Despite her youth, Campbell was no ingenue and no stranger to courtrooms and being questioned by lawyers. That summer she was named as the correspondent in the divorce case between a Southern California millionaire, Guy Lewis, the so-called “Bean King of Ventura County,” and his wife. While she was caught “spooning” with a millionaire, Campbell was not so willing to do the same with just any man.

“Lowell Sherman, the actor, came over and sat by me,” she recalled, “and began to get rough in his speech and actions, so I got up and walked away. A little later he went into his bedroom, leaving the door open, and called: ‘Come in here—I want to talk to you.’”

“Like a fool, I went in,” Campbell said. “Sherman immediately closed the door

and locked it. I heard them laughing outside. I kept my head, and when Sherman stepped toward me, I said: “Wait a moment—I want to fix my hair,” and ran into the bathroom. Just as he had done, I slammed the door and locked it. He tried to get in for a time, but gave it up and went back into the parlor. I watched my chance and ran out through the bedroom. As I came through the door, Freddy Fischbach [sic] tried to push me back into the room again. I shut the door on him and a little later got out safely.

“If I hadn’t been quick and in full possession of my senses,” Campbell added, “the same thing would have happened to me that happened to Miss Rappe. Only it was not Arbuckle who tried it.” In regard to the comedian, he was a “gentleman.” Although he drank a “considerable” amount of liquor in Campbell’s presence as the afternoon wore on, he wasn’t intoxicated.

“He did little except dance,” she said, “make clownish remarks, and sit shrugging his shoulders in that funny way of his.” Campbell felt safe enough in his company to be his dance partner. She stayed at the party for supper, too, during which she overheard Arbuckle lament, “I’m not going to take any blame for anything that happened to that girl.”

“This was the only remark that indicated nervousness,” Campbell, said. Otherwise, Arbuckle was merry and showed no remorse or concern for Virginia Rappe, who, Campbell, learned from others at the party, had been in room 1219 alone with him.

The other revelation that Campbell made to reporters was that Arbuckle left the party when supper was served. He had to make an appearance at a local theater. She is the only source for this anomaly in his Labor Day schedule.

Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren, caught flatfooted on learning of Campbell’s newspaper story, told the press that he and his colleagues were “very anxious to locate Miss Campbell,” but she had “mysteriously disappeared.”

[1] The following is based on “Girl Tells of Revel at Arbuckle Party,” San Francisco Examiner, 13 September 1921, 1, 2; “Lewis Co-Respondent Also Arbuckle Flame,” Oxnard Daily Courier, 14 September 1921, 1; Universal Service, “Show Girl Who Told of Assault Attempt at Orgy Disappears,” [Pittsburgh] Gazette,14 September 1921, 2; and other corroborative sources.

100 Years Ago Today: “Fatty” leaves L.A. for S.F., September 2, 1921

Roscoe Arbuckle and his companions set out from Los Angeles on Friday, September 2, the day before Al Semnacher left with his party of Virginia Rappe and Maude Delmont. Arbuckle, his chauffeur, and, perhaps, the director Fred Fishback took turns driving. The actor Lowell Sherman enjoyed the view from the backseat.

Greg Merritt, in Room 1219, was the first to posit this route, which began on Highway 2 North, the future U.S. Route 101, built atop the old Spanish royal road known as the Camino Real. But this route is conjectural. Arbuckle could have taken the more picturesque coastal route or the quicker inland route to the east that Semnacher took (present-day I-5). The Camino Real, however, would have allowed him to spend the night in Paso Robles, the approximate halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as he had done in June when he drove his custom purple Pierce-Arrow for display in the new San Francisco showroom of its builder, Don Lee.

Such a layover was quite different from the humble Selma ranch where Semnacher’s entourage stayed. Paso Robles boasted a beautiful hotel and curative hot springs. Arbuckle and Sherman could also sample some of the booze they’d packed for the trip. (Fred Fishback didn’t drink. He was, however, a kind of “cheerleader” to paraphrase Malcolm Lowry’s Consul in Under the Volcano.)

Roscoe Arbuckle using a grease gun on his Pierce-Arrow, ca. late 1920 (Newspapers.com)